July 6, 2014
by Kathleen Cook, guest
Please join me in prayer – may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord our strength and our Redeemer. AMEN
After I volunteered to give the sermon for this morning, Tom gave me the scripture readings as well as the title that is suggested by the UCC. That title was “Chosen Journeys” – and I tried very hard to use that. However, I couldn’t quite make the readings work and I finally realized that my real problem was that it felt like a title for a Graduation Address. To which my husband said – “oh, no! I hope you will make it shorter than that!!” It did give me pause for a moment – Jesus Christ as a commencement speaker…. Or maybe Paul!! Anyway, Tom told me that I was free to use any title I chose and I quickly move on.
So, at that point, I looked around for some inspiration, and decided that I would use my usual sources – the movies! And since this past weekend included Independence Day, I thought about “1776”. I have been fortunate enough to have seen “1776” both on stage at the Fisher Theater in Detroit and as a movie. One of the reasons I love it is because it contains huge chunks of dialogue that are taken from the letters and journals of those portrayed in the play and movie. It truly is living history.
But – did it tie into church? Fortunately for me, the easy answer is yes, in part because Christianity is referenced many times in the Declaration of independence, but also because I saw parallels between the delegates to the Continental Congress and the disciples.
As I pondered this sermon, I also found ways in which those delegates would find themselves quite at home in our church today.
For those who may not have seen “1776”, the story begins on June 2, 1776, and ends on July 4, 1776. It takes some liberties with history, but generally captures the essence of the decision of the Continental Congress to declare independence from England. The musical reveals how little some things have changed, with a number that finds John Adams claiming that the members of Congress “Piddle, Twiddle and Resolve” but nothing’s ever solved.
The delegates in Congress represented a wide spectrum of society at that time. Some members were rich landowners, very loyal to England and reluctant to risk their property rights. Some were merchants, many were lawyers or judges, there were physicians, others were farmers, one was a cobbler and one was a minister. Many were well-educated having attended Harvard, Yale or William and Mary, yet just as many were self-educated. And while they were all meeting as a Continental Congress, and meeting more than a year after Concord and Lexington, a large number of them intended to heal the rift with England; not to separate themselves into a new nation.
The musical gives those delegates a wonderful song which says in part, “Come ye cool, cool considerate men, the likes of which may never be seen again. With our land, cash in hand, self-command, future planned. And we’ll hold to our gold, tradition that is old, reluctant to be bold. We say this game’s not of our choosing, why should we risk losing? We cool, cool men.”
What a challenge it must have been for those like John Adams who were ready to risk everything in pursuit of freedom to deal with those who did not want to commit until they were sure that the rebellion would be successful.
The bigger division though was between slave owners and abolitionists; most particularly between north and south. However, there were many northerners who supported slavery as well, finding it a significant source of income. The original draft of the Declaration of Independence included language that would have suggested that slavery should be abolished.
On the one side were men like John Adams and Benjamin Franklin who had founded the first anti-slavery group in North America. Thomas Jefferson resolved to release all of his slaves, although he never in fact did so. On the other side were men like Edward Rutledge of South Carolina who claimed that to abolish slavery was to end a way of life in the South. He feared that it would impoverish the former slaveholders.
With a requirement that every colony must vote for independence, the inclusion of an anti-slavery clause threatened the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. In the movie “1776”, Ben Franklin cautions John Adams by reminding him that if there is no independence for the colonies, then the rest of it (meaning the abolishment of slavery) won’t mean anything anyway.
And so the anti-slavery clause is stricken and the Declaration is adopted without it. John Adams eerily predicts that future generations will not forgive them for this. Less than one hundred years later, the nation split again, in part because of the issue of slavery.
In the midst of the heated debate over removal of the clause, John Adams rails against those who are challenging it. He argues that the Declaration must be adopted as it was written. At that point, Benjamin Franklin says: “The issue here is independence!….These men, no matter how much we may disagree with them, they are not ribbon clerks to be ordered about – they are proud, accomplished men, the cream of their colonies. And whether you like them or not, they and the people they represent will part of this new nation that YOU hope to create. Now, either learn how to live with them, or pack and go home! In any case, stop acting like a Boston fishwife.”
The lesson of Franklin’s speech is that a group of men with disparate backgrounds and often hidden agendas could come together and find a way to put aside their differences in the name of independence. With a goal of creating a new nation, they found their individual places and nearly every one served in federal or state governments, moving the nation forward.
In a very different setting, for a different goal, the early disciples came together. Instead a new nation, they sought to assist in the creation of a new religion. While we do not know all of their backgrounds before they were called, we know that some were fishermen and that Matthew was a tax collector. None of them were rabbis or teachers.
They clearly had different temperaments, from Peter who was impetuous and swung from deep faith to serious doubts to the “sons of thunder” to those who were so quiet we never hear directly from them. It is hard to imagine what Jesus saw as he called each of them to follow.
And while one might imagine that men called for such a lofty purpose would seamlessly join together, the gospels are full of stories when the disciples jostled and fought to be the most favored. They argued about who would sit on his right and his left; not just on earth but once they ascended to heaven. They argued with each other and with Jesus whether to share the stories of miracles, whether to present themselves as followers, even whether to hide or flee. While at times each seemed deeply flawed, each also responded to that divine call.
In today’s Gospel message, Jesus is charging the disciples to go out to spread his word. And he cautions them that when they speak, they must be prepared for any kind of response. He compares them to children who will not be happy with any message. As Pam read, John came neither eating or drinking and was considered to be possessed of a demon. Jesus eats and drinks and is called a glutton and a drunkard. Talk about being damned if you do and damned if you don’t!
But then Jesus tells them that if you carry a heavy burden, you can lay it aside and pick up Jesus’ yoke and burden, for his yoke is easy and his burden light.
And so the disciples go out into the world. Some of them easily committed to the cause; some of them were still plagued with doubts. And all of them recognized that to follow Jesus was to split not only from any other religion but also from the established political power. Jesus was truly a revolutionary and his disciples were considered radicals.
The disciples and the delegates shared at least this much in common. And while the disciples literally were following the words of God, the delegates relied on their faith in God in creating a new nation.
Today we may not be trying to establish a new religion or a new nation. Yet we still are each trying to understand God’s plan for ourselves. As our commission states, we are trying to offer opportunities for spiritual growth and renewal.
And we are, in our ways, as disparate and different as the delegates to the Continental Congress. We may be a John Adams, seeking to change the traditional way of doing things in an effort to move the Church forward in our own vision; we may be a John Dickinson, seeking to preserve the past and make changes only when they become unavoidable; we may be a Thomas Jefferson, clearly seeing the vision and setting it forth for others; or perhaps a John Hancock who sought to mediate and find compromise; or even a Benjamin Franklin who often hid gems of wisdom in his witticisms.
No matter how, we each seek to find our place in this congregation. How fortunate we are that in the United Church of Christ, all are welcome. We have so many who have come from other denominations who have brought traditions and ideas that have now become a part of our service.
We all have something in common, disciple, delegate and congregant. At the heart of all of us is faith. Faith that we are following the right path; faith that we are united in this journey; faith that we can put down our heavy burdens and take up the easy yoke and light burden that Jesus presents us.
We can retain our independence in our thinking, in our actions, in our careers, in our politics and yet be united in our faith, our love for God, our dedication to this church and to our faith community.
We are – Independently United
Thanks be to God, AMEN